With The Nutcracker Ballet being rooted in tradition since 1892, it’s never a small feat to contemporize it’s classic sentiment and aura, but on December 10th’s performance, American Contemporary Ballet (ACB) took on that challenge in a 6th floor office space in Hollywood with 20 dancers, origination, costume twists, and a snowy wonderland set. With choreography and conception by Artistic Director, Lincoln Jones, the audience was consumed with the magical winter feeling only a night at the ballet can deliver.

Upon arrival, the audience gathered on a blank office floor with two wooden desks, a red telephone, occupied by dancers doodling and writing while keeping to themselves. This was the most confusing aspect of the evening, as seemingly construction workers in all white painter suits bumbled around in the background behind plastic drapes and curtains with electric drills and ladders. With no signage, music, or invitation to connect with the space, it may have been assumed that the company needed a divergence in which to gather all audience members at once, but unfortunately this left most of us confused, waiting, and uninspired. Then suddenly, there’s a phone call, and one of the dancers at the desk announces that “they’ve figured out the problem, and we’ve simply entered through the wrong door” as we all shuffle back towards the hallway. There, on the opposite end of the corridor, is a sign labeled “ The Nutcracker Suite” and despite the unnecessary back and forth, the scene ahead did not disappoint.

We were greeted by a beautiful dreamworld, production by Max Jezek and graphic design by Farewell, including pallets of fake snow, frosted floor to ceiling windows, popcorn treats, chocolate balls, flutes of champagne and a live orchestra. Emma McCartney on flute, Sérgio Coelho on clarinet, Strauss Shi on violin I, Kyle Gilner on violin II, Nao Kubota on viola, Allan Hon on cello, and Alin Melik-Adamyan on piano who immediately entranced us all with the harmonious sounds of classic Tchaikovsky. Two apprentices, dressed as dolls, circled the space with mechanical movement and interactive activities the audience could participate in as we mingled, drank, ate, and enjoyed the party. ACB incorporated the audience members right into the beginning of the Nutcracker ballet, as we all felt like Clara parading around the room, discovering trinkets, laughing with family, and becoming intrigued with the gadgets of dancers dressed as toys.

ACB - "The Nutcracker Suite" - Snowflakes - Photo by Anastasia Petukhova

ACB – “The Nutcracker Suite” – Snowflakes – Photo by Anastasia Petukhova

As the dancers were wheeled away, the audience began to take their seats as we left the party and entered into the fantasy land of performance. With a white/gray Marley floor set in front of the three tiered and five sectioned seating, the lights dimmed and Waltz of the Snowflakes began. In blue iridescent skirts, and whimsical tulle costumes, Cara Hanswick, Hanna Barr, Amanda Beasley, Sarah Bukowski, Carmen Callahan, Julia Cerra, Kristin Cowger, Madeline Miller, and Brittany Yevoli entered one by one in fleeting bourrées, port de bras, and arabesques. The choreography, although similar to the traditional composition, was still flavored with a new inventiveness appreciated by audience members who sat within earshot of the stage. And because we were closer to the dancers than a standard seating set-up, we could see them sweating, breathing, smiling, and enjoying their time performing for us. This was extremely evident in both ensemble pieces, solo, and duet.

By far, one of the most alluring numbers of the night was Coffee: Arabian Dance performed by Hannah Barr and Alberto Andrade. With glistening metallic brown and gold lamé costumes by Ruoxuan Li, the duet carried precision and chemistry that felt more like we happened upon them, instead of them performing for us. Already known for its intense technique in flexibility and partnering skills, Barr and Andrade performed with an excellent sense of mystery and celebration with near flawless form. Another electrifying twist off the classic act was Trepak: Russian Dance performed by Sarah Bukowski, Carmen Callahan, and Madeline Miller which ACB named “Candy Canes”. With tinsel strung around the bones of a short hoop skirt and leotard, the three ladies burst onto the scene with a cheery character and sweetness seen by children during their first dance recital. It was a refreshing interpretation to a classic male trio, and a wonderful and unexpected surprise.

This was not the last surprise of the evening, as our mechanical dolls from the pre-party made two more entrances in between scenes handing out delicious puddings, marzipan treats, and gingerbread cookies to each of the audience members. A very clever way of buying time, with a cast of 20, to do quick changes, water breaks, and a moment to breathe backstage. This was another brilliant tactic to incorporate the audience back into the immersive experience between fantasy and reality. We also had a moment to enjoy, talk, and reflect on the dancing, almost like a Christmas pallet cleanser.

Another impressive piece that ended the evening was the Sugar Plum Grand Pas de Deux performed by Michelle DeAngelis and Maté Szentes who truly utilized the stage space more so than any of the previous duets in Act I or II. Another proven act of balance, grace, and adagio back attitudes, the couple took their time to make eye contact and exchange smiles before major lifts, and difficult promenades. DeAngelis as the Sugar Plum fairy held a high expectation in fantasy and technical control; one almost did not want the pair to leave your sight. But as the finale ended, and the radiant lighting, by Zach Titterington, faded into black, the dancers exited the illusion, and we were all grateful for another holiday season with “ The Nutcracker Suite”. American Contemporary Ballet thought outside of the box and delivered a cozy atmosphere for child and adult alike by including the favorites with a little extra spice to the tried-and-true classics of this long standing ballet. It was a wonderful surprise to be surprised.

To purchase tickets to “The Nutcracker Suite” and to learn more the American Contemporary Ballet, please visit its website.

Written by Grace Courvoisier for LA Dance Chronicle.

Featured image: American Contemporary Ballet – “The Nutcracker Suite” – Photo by Victor Demarchelier